Sunday, November 06, 2005
A New Urbanist Responds to Architects' Cliches
Eric Owen Moss, the director of the Southern California Institute of Architecture, went so far as to say that Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour's decision to bring in the New Urbanists suggested a nostalgic yearning for the "good old days of the Old South."
Kamin was quoting a statement by Moss in the Washington Post:
It's right-wing developer-speak masquerading as populism. The ideological image-making would appeal to a kind of anachronistic Mississippi that yearns for the good old days of the Old South as slow and balanced and pleasing and breezy, and each person knew his or her role.
It has taken me a few weeks to simmer down and respond to your comments in the Washington Post regarding the Mississippi Reconstruction Charrette. I have known you for thirty years now and think of you as being a talented, fair, knowledgeable and tolerant person.
Your comments to the Press a few weeks ago regarding Mississippi and Mississippians were outrageous in their prejudice. These are fellow countrymen and women you were describing. They come in many colors, many political and cultural stripes, and at this time they are deeply in need of our help. To think of them as the children of slave masters, is to think of all westerners as the children of murderous colonials.
How can a profound person like you make such superficial comments? You need to visit the South to recognize that the place is not very different from other parts of our country.
Your comments regarding the new urbanism were equally uninformed. When I need to respond intelligently to a tendency or movement I disagree with, I become expert enough in its nature and character, to outthink it on its own terms. Your understanding of the CNU is superficial at best. And your comments sound remarkably hollow for a director of a School of Architecture.
Let me point out three things that may further illuminate this discussion:
1 The new urbanism is a movement that rejects architecture as the design of isolated and autonomous objects. Instead, it places such objects in a context where they need to be generated in friction with a larger order of design, the making of public space, the landscape, traffic and parking, sustainability protocols, codes, etc.
2 New urbanists believe in the historical continuity of all culture. We consider it a delusion that architecture can be reinvented every Monday morning by 24 year olds who take a passing fancy to it. We think that typological order, lasting expressive gestures and best practices over the centuries matter immensely. A profession without its own internal structure has nothing to profess. It is running on empty.
We are tolerant of work such as yours, but consider that a world reduced to it would be impoverished at best. The twenty first century is eclectic to its core. Therefore, many architectures must be allowed to exist, not only the modernist experimental variety. And all of them should be considered significant, depending on where and how they are applied.
3 New urbanists do not consider their student days the pinnacle of their professional existence. They see themselves as eager and capable to learn and to engage society for a lifetime, in all of its challenges. To be of service, to listen, to teach and to learn by doing is a principal new urbanist ideal.
I am telling you all of this, because it was for reasons such as these, that we have been recognized for what we do in the world, and were invited to Mississippi by its Governor after Katrina. After the worst natural catastrophe in our nation’s history he needed substantive advice on the reconstruction of a vast area encompassing 11 municipalities. What he saw in us was a group of 120 people, paired with 100 local professionals who could gather for a week on short notice and in many cases pro bono, to deliver substantial advice. He realized that we are architects and city builders, we respect the fact that forced change is about balancing tradition with newness, and that we can be trusted with the complexities and sensitivities of the public process. We are the only professional group in the United States that could respond rapidly to the nature and the complexity of the problem of reconstruction on the Coast.
If you are open to absorb this brief explanation of new urbanist motivations, you may acknowledge how silly it is to dismiss this movement on stylistic grounds or any other simplistic basis. As long as you and those teaching and practicing around you would not be capable or charitable enough to engage the interests of Mississippi at this time, you should at least acknowledge that it is legitimate for some one else to do so.
I respect your freedom to do what you do. Please at least, extend the same respect to us. And if you are tempted to engage in a broader debate on this, I would be delighted to do so personally and/or by fielding a team to engage you whenever and wherever you choose.
In the interest of theological accommodation, I am also sending you under a separate cover a copy of the book, The Charter of the New Urbanism, as a gift to the Sci Arc library. I hope you read it first before you deposit it there.
Moule & Polyzoides Architects]
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Tracked on Nov 7, 2005 1:03:01 AM
Tracked on Nov 7, 2005 3:09:17 AM
This writer's three points sound eminently reasonable. But his claim that New Urbanism believes that "the 21st century is eclectic to its core" and that "many architectures must be allowed to exist" seems hard to reconcile with this graf from the Washington Post article:
To discourage a hodgepodge of architectural styles as homeowners rebuild, Duany was prepared to recommend that aesthetically acceptable designs from pre-approved plan books be subsidized. He was hoping to line up a factory to produce regionally appropriate designs for mobile homes, which might give more character to emergency housing developments. But the disadvantaged would follow a time-honored script. "Poor people end up further inland," Duany said.
Posted by: Joseph Clarke at Nov 6, 2005 10:12:37 PM
Joseph, I'd like to point out that the passage you offer is NOT a direct quote from Duany.
More importantly, Duany has said explicitly that of course Modernism (as "style" though not as site plan) can easily be part of New Urbanism.
Posted by: David Sucher at Nov 7, 2005 12:44:41 AM
And that's the problem with too many New Urbanist subdivisions-they tend to be rigorously proscriptive and restrictive in what you can do. Maybe, as can be argued, modernism doesn;t produce a good house design for an urban neighborhood. But, it can without greek columns and brick trim.
Posted by: Brian Miller at Nov 7, 2005 2:02:30 PM
No one is being told what to do. On the other hand, you seem to be doing that.
People love classical columns in Mississippi. Many of the buildings destroyed had classical columns. Are you telling them they can't rebuild what was there, and that they have to build what you like?
Stef is right that we are in a very eclectic age. Architects like Moss want everyone to let Moss give them a very unpopular architecture.
Is there a market for it? Of course, particularly in places like New York and LA. But in most of the country it's a very small market.
Posted by: john massengale at Nov 7, 2005 2:29:31 PM
You have a good point, John. Classicsim does have that long heritage in Mississippi. My fear, as I've posted on david Sucher's site, is that all the good thinking completed by the team will just be ignored in the interests of expediency, property rights, and quick and dirty profits. This is part of the heritage of the deep south, too.
(Out here in California, it seems like they can't get it "right"-at least in single family home designs)
Posted by: Brian Miller at Nov 8, 2005 12:31:27 PM
"Architects like Moss want everyone to let Moss give them a very unpopular architecture."
I just don't think that's true, John. Granted, modern architects like Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright expressed this view in the early 1900s. But I am not aware of any contemporary avant-garde architect advocating utopian urban schemes to nearly the degree of New Urbanism.
Posted by: Joseph Clarke at Nov 9, 2005 12:46:59 PM
If anything, developments like Trump World (or whatever it is called) on the West Side in Manhattan is far closer to the Radiant City than anything a contemporary architect has proposed these days (I'm pretending Atlantic Yards is not going to happen, and, in any case, that is driven as much by the developer as the architect). Can anyone point to large scale proposals from noted architects (absent external influence) who aren't NU that take such an antiquated line.?
Posted by: miss representation at Nov 13, 2005 5:19:48 PM
MR - If your comment is a joke, I don't get it. Every chic Euroarchitect loves neo-60s towers: remember these ideal proposals for New York's Futurama II? And how about the second coming of Houston at the on East River at the Con Ed site?
As it happens, I just found this RIBA Practice Bulletin:
From RIBA PRACTICE BULLETIN - No. 324
(10 November 2005)
- High rise housing shoots up in regions
STANDING TALL - THE HIGH RISE IS BACK
High rise housing is back and it is not just restricted to affluent enclaves in London and Docklands. Updated research from Savills, which has been keeping tabs on any predominantly residential tower proposal over 20 storeys, has identified no less than 127 towers in the pipeline or under construction.
And they are getting taller - the average height of residential towers in the Savills survey is up from 24 storeys last year to 27 storeys this year.
Almost half of the towers are in the London area, but the areas seeing the fastest growth in high rise projects are the North West, North East and Yorkshire and Humberside. Together these northern regions have seen their share of pipeline towers rising from 24% last year to 43% in 2005, with Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool showing the way.
Posted by: john massengale at Nov 14, 2005 5:21:31 PM
"But I am not aware of any contemporary avant-garde architect advocating utopian urban schemes to nearly the degree of New Urbanism."
New urbanist plans are generally based on realism and pragmatism, not utopianism. That has been borne out in the marketplace.
But there's a sense in which you're right: Contemporary avant-garde architects advocate dystopian, not utopian, schemes. Because menacing megastructures are so much more hip than a five-minute walk to get an ice cream cone, dontcha know.
Posted by: Laurence Aurbach at Nov 15, 2005 7:33:29 PM